Tuesday, April 18, 2006

New Testament Reflections

On the Study of Many Books . . .

Bible study is just so much more enjoyable and spiritually satisfying when it's done right. One thing I would not recommend in the upcoming Reflections series is to read my comments as the primary text. Reflections is a commentary on Scripture; and commentaries are meant to be read after you've developed a grasp of the biblical text; and then usually only to consult an outside source so that you can confirm your own understanding of it. It can also be used to fill in the gaps of knowledge and understanding of the text; but bear in mind that the essence of those gaps in knowledge will take the form of questions you've formulated in your own mind as you've pored through the text. More often than not, the notes in commentaries are met with blank stares from those who have not done the necessary ditch work on their own. When you haven't even gotten to the stage of asking the right exegetical questions of the text, it's not likely the answers found in commentaries will make a whole lot of sense. Hence, there are some foundational steps to take on your own to make the most of Bible study. I've listed them below:

1. Read the entire book in one sitting: Read it through at least once. There is just no substitute for getting a bird's eye view and seeing the whole picture before focusing on the details. In fact, with a short book like Philippians, it is best to make it your goal to read through the entire book about 30 times. This can be done concurrently with the rest of the steps below.

2. Divide the book into logical partitions: This step is not as necessary with a short book like Philippians as it is with a longer book like Romans, but it is still recommended so that you are not so overwhelmed by taking on too much at one time.

3. Read the first partition repetitively: Begin to read the first partition every day. For Philippians, after you've reading through the entire book a handful of times in as many days, begin reading daily through chapter one and treat it as the first division.

4. Take notes: After the third or fourth day of repetitive reading, you'll no doubt begin to see patterns in the text--patterns of thought, key words, themes, key ideas, etc. Begin recording these on a pad of paper, as well as any questions about the text that may come to mind.

5. Decide on the paragraph divisions: Paragraphs are the shortest complete thought of the writer, and for that reason we will be interpreting by paragraphs. Unfortunately, paragraph divisions are not part of the original text. So, if you're using any translation except the NASB (New American Standard Bible), the paragraph divisions have likely been marked off for you. You're welcome to use those; or you can decide what they are on your own. Using the NASB affords you the advantage of using a translation that does not have preformatted paragraph parameters.

6. Familiarize yourself with the background. After about a week of repetitive reading, get your hands on a good New Testament Introduction (I recommend Carson and Moo), and read the section on the book you are studying. This will bring many things to light, and will likely resolve many of the questions you've formulated about the text so far.

7. Focus on the first paragraph first: After reading the Introduction (step 6), begin to focus your daily readings around the paragraph you are going to interpret first (in the case of Philippians, that would be the salutation in 1:1-2). After you've interpreted that paragraph, repeat all necessary steps above for each subsequent paragraph.

8. Attempt an interpretation: After several days of reading and taking notes on the first paragraph, it's time to interpret the passage for yourself. One of the easiest ways of doing this is to attempt to paraphrase the passage. Try stating it in your own words, incorporating into your translation as many things as you now know about the text and the background. Don't worry if your translation is very long--that the whole point. You're now creating a "commentary" of sorts on the text.

9. Consult a commentary. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, this is the last step of Bible study, not the first. This Reflection series will be sufficient for this step, but you may also want to consult other commentaries as well (Peter T. O'Brien is probably the best on Philippians; Gordon Fee's commentary is also acceptable).

You may find you haven't the time to do all the steps above before we post the first in this series. But it will give you a start, and you can actually do many of the steps concurrently.